GUG, Pakistan — Pakistani military helicopters on Thursday ferried remains of plane crash victims to the capital, Islamabad, as aviation authorities said they opened a probe into the crash that killed 47 passengers and crew the day before in the country's northwest.
The small twin-propeller aircraft was travelling from the scenic mountain resort city of Chitral to Islamabad on Wednesday when one of its engines failed shortly after takeoff and crashed in the hillside village of Gug in the district of Abbottabad, according to Pervez George of the Civil Aviation Authority. No one survived.
The plane belonged to the Pakistani national carrier, the Pakistan International Airlines, and had 42 passengers and five crew members on board, PIA spokesman Daniyal Gilani said.
Witnesses said they saw the plane flying very low for several minutes before tilting and going down, then bursting into flames upon crashing in Gug. The village is located next to another, Saddha Batolni, from where residents also joined the rescue work.
"The plane was swaying ... then I saw it hitting the hill with a loud bang," said Chaudhry Rustam, a villager who rushed to the crash site. Then, thick black smoke was seen billowing from the debris, he added. It looked for a while the plane would fall on the village, he said, and "hundreds of villagers came out fearing it will destroy our homes."
Dozens of villagers helped retrieve the remains.
Zainab Nazakat said she was preparing dinner when she saw the plane coming down, hitting several trees and a water supply tank on an elevated ground.
"When we lifted one of its wings, there was a heap of body remains under it," said social worker Jabir bin Khayan.
Reporters at the site on Thursday saw the plane's wreckage strewn over a 2 kilometer- (1.2 mile-) radius, blackened from the smoke and fire overnight, with clothes, shoes and passenger bags scattered about.
Among those killed in the crash was Junaid Jamshed, a popular pop-singer-turned-Islamic-preacher who went to Chitral along with his wife, his family said. The couple's remains were to be taken to the port city of Karachi after identification.
So far, authorities have identified only five bodies, said Junaid Sarwar, a hospital spokesman in the northwestern city of Abbottabad. The remains of others were so badly charred that the National Database and Registration Authority could not identify them at the hospital.
PIA says the plane lost contact with the control tower just before the crash in Gug, about 90 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of Islamabad.
Azam Sehgal, the PIA chairman, told a news conference at the Islamabad airport on Wednesday that the plane's black box recorder had been found. He said the pilot had told the control tower an engine developed a technical fault. Moments later he made a "mayday call," shortly before the plane disappeared from radar.
In Islamabad, senior government and PIA officials were on hand at a sports complex on Thursday to receive the remains, which were brought by military helicopters from Abbottabad. The remains are to be held in forensic labs at hospitals in Islamabad and in the nearby garrison city of Rawalpindi until DNA tests are completed — a process that may take up to six days, according to a Cabinet Minister Tariq Fazal Chaudhry.
The families of the victims were distressed at the prospects of the long wait ahead.
"I lost my young niece and a cousin. I don't know for how many days I will have to wait to get their remains," said Maqsoodul Mulik, one of the grieving relatives gathered in Islamabad.
Another relative, Raja Amir, said he lost his mother. "I don't know what I will get but surely I know that my mother's body will be beyond recognition," he said.
Pakistan's air industry has had a mixed record recently. About 150 people were killed in a crash near Islamabad in 2010, and last year, a military helicopter carrying several diplomats also crashed in the country's north, killing eight people.
In 2012, a Bhoja Air passenger plane crashed near Islamabad due to bad weather, killing all 127 people on board.
Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Aqeel Ahmed in Mansehra, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the plane went down in the village of Gug, not in the village of Saddha Batolni, which is next to Gug.